Hans Berger Biography (1873-1941)

psychiatrist, neurologist

Hans Berger was a professor of psychiatry and director of the Jena Psychiatric University Clinic from 1919 until his forced retirement in 1938. But it ishis research into the correlation of brain activity and consciousness for which he is remembered. This research led him by a long and frustrating path tothe discovery of the electroencephalogram (EEG) of man. The EEG is a graphicrepresentation of electrical waves measured repeatedly between two points ofthe skull, and though Berger himself did not develop its full potential as adiagnostic tool, the EEG has since come to be invaluable in diagnosing and treating such neurological disorders as epilepsy and brain tumors.

Born on May 21, 1873 in the small northern Bavarian town of Neuses near Coburg, Germany, Berger was the son of Paul Friedrich Berger, a physician, and ofAnna Rückert, daughter of a German poet who was well known for his studies in oriental philosophy. In his life and work, Berger combined both sides of this intellectual inheritance, determining early on to become a scientist-philosopher. Berger graduated with honors from the Gymnasium in Coburg and then enrolled at the University of Berlin as an astronomy student in 1892. The next year he volunteered for military service in the German army, and it was as a result of a near fatal accident he had in the army that he set his courseto uncover the link between the brain and consciousness. The very day of hisaccident, Berger's sister informed their parents that she knew Berger had had an accident, so Berger's father sent an urgent telegram to see if his son was all right. This seemed to Berger to be a pure case of telepathic communication with his sister, and he became convinced that he could find the objective proof of such a psychic power.

Released from the army in 1893, Berger began studying medicine, finally earning his doctorate of medicine at Jena in 1897 and becoming a junior staff member at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Jena where he would remainuntil 1938. In 1901 he became Privatdozent, or lecturer at the university andalso published his first investigations on the functioning of the brain, recording the change of size as modified by the circulation of blood. He accomplished this by studying brain pulsation in the skull defect of a patient who had undergone a trepanation or surgery through the skull. On the staff of a medical clinic, Berger had access to a wide variety of patients who were willing to participate in his experiments. He continued a variety of experiments searching for some objective, measurable results of psychic or conscious conditions. These included investigations of the influence of heartbeat, vascular measurements, and position of the head on pulsations of the brain, as well asthe effects of medications such as caffeine, morphine, camphor, and cocaine on brain activity. As early as 1902 he hit upon recording the electrical activity of the cerebral cortex of a dog in an attempt to measure psychic activity, but by 1910 he had given up on these experiments because they provided suchscant results. During these same years, Berger also pursued another line ofinquiry: the changes of temperature of the cerebral cortex as measured by introducing minute and precise thermometers into the brains of patients who hadundergone cerebral puncture, then a new and popular diagnostic procedure. Searching for the elusive psychic energy (P-energie), these experiments also seemed to lead to a dead end.

Berger served on the western front during the First World War, in a militaryhospital at Rethel. He came back to a Germany on the brink of revolution. Thedirector of the psychiatric clinic at Jena resigned and returned to his native Switzerland, and Berger was appointed the new director. For the next several years administrative duties deterred Berger's further researches into thecorrelation between brain and psyche, but in his few private moments he started once again to focus on measuring the electrical activity of the brain. Hebecame known to his colleagues as a punctual and rather strict director, andfew of them knew of his researches. His day was strictly defined by the clockof duty, and it was only from 5:00 to 8:00 P.M. that he found time to continue his experiments. As a result of the war, there was a surplus of patients at the clinic with skull defects whose pulsating brain was protected by only afew millimeters of tissue. These patients made excellent subjects for his experiments with electrode stimulation of the brain, specifically of the motorcortex. Berger measured the time between stimulus and corresponding touch sensations in the extremities of his subjects. But soon he hit on a new idea: searching for currents or brain waves in these same patients. Employing rathercrude instruments, such as the Edelmann string galvanometer used to record electrocardiograms, he made his first successful EEG on July 6, 1924, when he observed small movements on the galvanometer on a young patient named Zedel. Berger continued these experiments for five more years before publishing his results, using not only patients with skull imperfections or trepanations, butalso patients with intact skulls. With this latter group he placed one electrode at the front and another at the back of the skull. In 1929 he publishedhis results in the prestigious Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten. Entitled "Über das Elektrenkephalogramm des Menschen," itwas the first of fourteen such articles published between 1929 and 1938 on the results of his experiments with the EEG. His 1929 article not only shows that regular electrical current oscillations can be recorded from the scalp ofhumans, but also that these oscillations are not due to blood flow, electrical properties of the skin or any of several other possibilities. His third paper definitely proves the cerebral origin of the waves, yet Berger's findingswere largely ignored by the scientific community, and it was not until 1934 when other researches, chief among them neurophysiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian and B. C. H. Matthews, finally drew attention to what Berger himselflong knew as a certainty: the electrical activity of the brain could be measured.

Berger led a relatively happy domestic life, married in 1911 to a young technical assistant at the clinic, Baroness Ursula von Bulow. They had four children: Klaus, Ruth, Ilse and Rosemarie. Berger continued his studies on the EEG,always balancing research with his administrative duties, installing his increasingly elaborate set of instruments in a tiny annex just off his office. But despite growing international recognition for his achievements, he was largely ignored in Germany. Part of the reason for this was his antipathy for the Nazis and their distrust of him. In 1938, following an International Congress of Psychology in Paris in which he found himself to be something of an international celebrity, he was greeted in Germany by humiliation: his forced retirement. His laboratory was dismantled and he moved to the small town of BadBlankenburg in Thuringia to live out his days. He could no longer pursue hisresearches, and on June 1, 1941, following a long depression which he had misdiagnosed as a cardiac condition, Berger took his own life.

In the final analysis, Berger's work on the human electroencephalogram must be viewed as a means to an end. At the back of his mind always was the searchfor the secret of man's psychophysical nature; of the connection between brain and psyche. Thus his interest in the EEG was towards that end, not in the use of it as a diagnostic tool for which it has become known.

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